Why should lines be avoided in tables?


I read some books about typography and design. They all recommended to avoid lines in tables, and instead to make use of spacing. I found that reasonable and adhered henceforth to those rules.

Recently I ran into discussions with spreadsheet users, who doubted these rules and argued that grid-lines are better since all programs have them turned on by default.

I also read an article that explained the problem with lines: the human eye first has to remove them before it can focus on the content of the table. If somebody would know this one or similar scientific findings about perception of data, I would be glad as well.

Is it in fact better to avoid lines? Why? Do you have any references you could provide to back this up with?

1/27/2017 3:03:00 PM

Accepted Answer

Edward Tufte is the one that coined the term chart junk to refer to extraneous visual elements that tend to clutter, rather than clarify the data being presented.

This can refer to all sorts of things that you tend to see often, but don't really enhance the understanding and--often--actively interfere with the understanding of the data.

These can include:

  • arbitrary color
  • 3D effects
  • excessive borders
  • redundant labels
  • zebra striping
  • etc.

I think this animated gif communicates the concept nicely:

enter image description here

Is it better to remove lines? Usually. The point to consider when dealing with chart junk is that you should use only what is necessary to format the data. Anything extra is just that...extra...and likely not enhancing the message.

11/5/2015 1:54:00 AM

I think you may reconsider the issue of your question by focusing on the table purpose instead of any general guideline.

For instance, if the readers need to compare the content of different rows, it may be easier to differentiate each row. You can also consider to implement contrasts between columns instead.

There are several options to make rows or columns distinguishable:

  • Alternate background colors (soft colors, so that the contrast still makes text readable)
  • Use lines between rows or columns
  • Use padding around content in the table

Your choice would depend on :

  • What would the user do with your table, and how to make this use easier for the user: this would guide the hierarchy of the read, and therefore your graphic choices
  • The size of the content, and consequently, the size of the table: for instance, long lines must be graphicaly distinguishable; it is not so much required for a little table

That being said, in my experience, in most of the cases, I tend to try not to use lines, which are quite heavy. I prefer to use alternate shaded background-colors for rows. And, if required, white lines for columns only. This way, content gets prominent, and table graphics imperceptibly guide the user.

Always consider the table purpose before applying any style.